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Berkeleyan

Outreach is essential to the research enterprise

| 28 January 2004

 



Young students in the Break the Cycle after-school tutorial program work with Berkeley undergraduate tutors to master grade-level expectations in mathematics. The program builds the academic foundation the children will need to become college-ready.
Jeff Wason photo

The Berkeley campus will be full of excellent students even if outreach is totally eliminated, as called for in the governor’s budget proposal. So why do so many faculty — virtually all of whom have a considerable stake in the overall quality of the student body -— object so strongly to that prospect?

From the perspective of the sciences, and the faculty who teach them, there are both personal and practical reasons for not only supporting K-12 outreach as a concept, but participating in it wholeheartedly. The personal aspect reflects the altruistic and responsible side of those among us who simply want to help young men and women push the envelopes of their potential.

The practicalities include improving the schools that faculty children themselves attend; helping to develop the state’s intellectual capital; and addressing the need to have undergraduates, once they reach Berkeley, fully prepared to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving, both in the classroom and in research groups.

Many of us in the sciences believe, just as our colleagues in the humanities do, that educational outreach — providing young and eager minds with exploratory exercises and true discovery activities — is absolutely essential to the ultimate success of the research enterprise. Quite apart from the usual benefits associated with a diverse student population — the exposure that all who come here, student and faculty alike, experience as they mingle with people of varied ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, ages, socioeconomic positions, and sexual preferences — there is another, equally substantive advantage to be realized.

Scientific research requires the assembly of “unifying” hypotheses from disparate pieces of information, whether discovered by one’s own research group or extracted from the literature produced by many others. Scientific insight is not simply an artifact of standardized, one-size-fits-all education. To the contrary: tapping the insights that stem from many different experiences and perspectives is essential to coming up with hypotheses that may describe the reality underlying problems in chemistry, biology, or physics.To maximize the creativity and tenacity — the strength of mind and spirit both — needed to successfully explore new areas of study and discovery, students from many different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures must be included in the scientific enterprise.

When Berkeley faculty work with K-12 teachers and their protégés, they expand the opportunity for those young minds to focus their burgeoning powers on creative approaches to scientific problems. That’s why participation in outreach activities is not only personally rewarding but a “no-brainer,” assuring that mentored apprentices will move from formal classroom education to guided research experiences to independent research actvity.

So while Berkeley will not want for top-notch students if outreach vanishes, it will be a campus that lacks the full range of talent that the state of California offers, and that it needs not only on its campuses but in its businesses and industries, its arts, its service sector, and its government. Honoring that diverse “talent pool” is not only rational and sensible but an obligation: The University of California has a societal responsibility to educate the state’s children. Beyond that, the system’s highly competitive campuses — of which Berkeley is the acknowledged flagship — have a responsibility to make sure that the highest-achieving students in the state interact with each other in the classroom, sharing and benefiting from the varied insights that reflect California’s rich cultural heritage.

That heritage, and the demographic changes that continue to shape the heritage we will leave for our children and their children, are important to Berkeley’s faculty. They take seriously the equitable education of children from all of California’s communities, upon which the future of each of our academic disciplines depends. It is nothing less than crucial that Gov. Schwarzenegger take these matters just as seriously.

Caroline Kane, adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has long been involved with the campus Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering, which works to increase the diversity of professionals in those fields. For information, visit www.aad.berkeley.edu/coalition/